Party Design Basics – Designing Dessert Tables

I’m excited to address the art of designing dessert tables in this edition of my Party Design Basics series. Dessert tables have become THE party staple and focal point thanks to leaders in design like Amy Atlas and Sweets Indeed.

You can hardly see a styled party today without an elaborate sweets display, but for the purpose of this blog and ‘realistic’ home entertaining & celebrations, I’m going to cover some basic design principles that are a bit more ‘achievable.  Using some of my own tables as examples, I’ll cover simple tips to keep in mind when designing yours.

{click on photo to see its original post}

  • Keep the Food Selection Realistic – It’s no secret that I believe in using 1 or 2 designer desserts, and then rounding out with more commercial items. In fact, a basic formula to keep in mind is 1-2 specialty items {like cakes, cupcakes, cookies, etc.} + 1-3 homemade items or dressed up grocery items + 2-3 candies to fill out the table. This should be more than enough to satisfy your guests sweet tooth. In the table above, we have a fabulous designer cake that is the star of the table. The cake was vanilla flavored so we added chocolate brownie pops in our supporting role, and filled in with color coordinated candies.
  • Variety is the Spice of Life – Serving a variety of flavors is a good idea unless of course you are specifically doing a “chocolate” party or other flavor-themed party. I also like to choose different textures to serve. Good choices are Cakes + Parfaits + Bars + Something Crunchy – these would make a wonderful assortment, and a taste to satisfy all palates. In the table below, I went with a chocolate theme but added different textures with the creamy bonbon truffles, soft cakesters & brownies, chocolate cups filled with Bailey’s or eggnog, and crunchy pirouettes with milk shots.

  • Height is Essential – When setting up your table, the main thing is to go for balance, and to keep the eyes moving – much like interior decorating. I usually begin designing from the center and work outward, OR from the 2 ends and work inward. From there you can add varying rows and levels to fill in the blank space. Please don’t set everything flat on the table! Use bowls turned upside down, or boxes to put plates on to add height. In the table above, I added height with decorative items like flowers placed on candlesticks & apothecary jars filled with ornaments, and a tray placed on top of votive candle holders {turned upside down}. The tall cake stand adds one more level also.
  • Space Management – One of the mistakes I see a lot of is people spreading all the dishes out to take up the available table space. Instead, bring it all closer together so it looks more deliberate, and it actually looks more abundant. If your table is too large and you don’t have enough food, add flowers or sculptural/home decor pieces to the presentation, or designate one end of the table for the desserts and the other end for something else like a guest book, photo display, or favors. The table below was done very simply on a long buffet but everything is brought close together so it looks unified. If I had spread everything out to take up the entire length, the impact would be lost. The backdrop here also helps define the dessert space and the hanging flowers are visually connected to the food.

  • Sleek & Symmetrical vs. Eclectic & Asymmetrical – One of the most fun, and sometimes trickiest parts of creating a dessert table is deciding how and where to place everything. Do you want to create symmetry with one side mirrored on the other, or do you like to have a unique look on each side? If you choose a symmetrical look it tends to be a bit more sleek & modern, and the thing to remember is to keep the vessels, the levels, and the colors uniform on both sides. This usually means your center point is the focal point and should be pretty special. Symmetry is used in the table above by separating the dessert item and displaying it on both side – so easy!
  • Choosing an asymmetrical look allows you to be a bit more free and creative since you don’t have to be so precise. It also lets you create a focal point on either side, and bring in eclectic decor to add to the overall look. If you prefer to go with this approach, remember to create balance by adding something to the backdrop or opposite side, that is similar in height to the other side. I used an asymmetrical design in the table below. Nothing ‘matches’ but everything ties in together through color and style, and the height of the shutter balances the height of the mini chair.

Final Tips:

  • Don’t go overboard with food.  Just because it looks gorgeous in photos & blogs doesn’t mean you & your guests will eat it all.
  • Add variety to your food selection with different flavors & textures.
  • Keep the eye moving with height, levels, and rows. 
  • Keep your display tight.  Too much table showing looks unfinished.
  • Add interest to the display with decorative items like flowers, seasonal items, and home decor pieces.
  • Get creative with how you display food.  Incorporate unusual or unexpected pieces like old kitchen scales, vintage soda crates, garden vessels, etc.  Always keep things food safe by lining them if necessary.

I’m hoping these tips will help you create a pretty dessert table step by step.  And remember, you don’t just have to serve sweets like this – appetizer parties and brunch also looks fantastic when displayed this way!


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  1. the diet solution says

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over
    again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

  2. says

    Thank you so much for the great tips! I can see myself using every one of these in my next party table design. Thank you for making it easy to understand and providing the summary at the end. Greatly appreciated!

  3. Eboni J says

    Love this post! This may seem like a fairly simple question and it may have already been asked as well. When setting up a dessert table for a client, do you stay on site? It’s probably not necessary to stay around to serve cake pops and gum balls so do you just come back after the event to collect the dishes and props? Or is it normal to include the cost of those items in the price? I’m fairly new to the dessert table concept and I’d love to incorporate it so any advice would be awesome! Thank you! Keep up the good work.

  4. Helene says

    Great tips! I also wanted to add that while going overboard with food is risky (and easy!), it is probably still a safer mistake than going ‘underboard’! I am sure I’m not the only person who feels deeply and meaningfully insulted if my host puts out a paltry spread…!